By Brian Keegan
The single market is a collective name for a series of arrangements to facilitate commerce across EU member states; in essence, as if those member countries were one and the same.
It involves each country accepting the “four freedoms” of movement of goods, capital, services, and people.
In practice, however, there are restrictions on the ability of professionals — lawyers, doctors, engineers and others — to practice across borders. The freedom to move services is not always in the limelight when it comes to political discussions, but it matters a lot.
Within the EU, it’s taken for granted that if a legitimate Irish business wants to set up a branch in France or the UK, or vice versa, that there’s really nothing the authorities in either country can do to stop them. In reality, however, the ideals of the single market don’t fully transfer across to services, and certainly not to the same extent as they transfer to products.
One of the first principles of the EU treaties, individuals who are properly qualified in their own country should be able to practice as doctors, lawyers, accountants, hair stylists or in whatever profession in another EU member country. This is not currently the case.
Because of the variety of training and professional environments in different countries, it’s often not possible to directly equate the training given, say to an accountant, in Ireland with the training given in another country.
In the case of the accountant, for instance, the tax rules studied would be different, for one thing. Instead, there’s a mutual recognition arrangement which specifies, for many of the professions, the minimum requirements to practice within the EU, and what additional study or experience might be needed to move from one country to another.
These arrangements are by no means perfect but are better than the alternative which is zero recognition without any recourse to law.
However, in recent times, the EU Commission has started to take a dim view of some of the hoops member countries make professionally qualified foreign nationals jump through. In an unusual move, the Commission last month issued so-called infringement proceedings which challenge a country to explain why it is not compliant with its obligations under EU law.
Infringement proceedings are not unusual in their own right. What is unusual is that the same proceedings would be issued to 27 of the 28 member countries at the one time. All of the EU member countries, with the honourable exception of Lithuania, should be better at accepting the qualifications of each other’s professionals.
A Commission requirement is that there should much wider acceptance of a “European Professional Card”, a form of electronic evidence a person can bring across EU borders.
One of the problems is that currently it only applies to five professions. Unless you’re a physiotherapist, a general practice nurse, a pharmacist, an auctioneer or a mountain guide, it’s not a whole lot of use to you.
The Commission is also concerned that countries apply unfair requirements on speaking the local language as an excuse not to recognise professional qualifications earned in other countries.
There would be huge advantages to having more qualifications recognised across borders, not least for the training college or institute offering the cross-border qualification.
Offering certificates or diplomas in skills which could be used in any EU country without quibble would be a key selling point. The snag with this EU ideal may be more cultural than commercial, but that attitude is changing.
Restrictions on the recognition of qualifications is emerging as an additional, perhaps unforeseen, issue with Brexit.
Some UK professionals are rushing to obtain certification outside the UK so they can continue to practice within the EU. Sometimes it takes the threatened loss of a privilege to make people appreciate its value.
Brian Keegan is director of public policy and taxation at Chartered Accountants Ireland.